Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Visiting Hours

We’re going from bad to worse.

I had narrowly escaped the God issue, I thought, though maybe I hadn’t. Yes, I conceded that there were miracles all around us, and indeed within us. I granted—perhaps arrogantly?—that since it is unbelievably-next-to-impossible that we should be here, the jump to the shores of God was a short hop indeed. And then I said that God made Himself known, and spoke to me, through music.

Right—took care of that!

And so I ventured on to Chapter 5, which is entitled How it Works. ‘Aha,’ I thought, ‘home free! We’ll get down to a few practical details, a bit of “how-to,” and then we’ll be on our way! We can tiptoe around the God issue once again!’

Big mistake!

In fact, I had bemoaned the need to cook up a Higher Power to my sister-in-law, who is as godless as I am. She is, however, one of the best people I know, as well as being a virtually teetotaler, which in my family is unheard of. Anyway, she had the answer….

“Why not have the best part of you be your Higher Power? You know, the part of you that is loving, generous, wise…”

She continued on to list other adjectives—places I’ve read about but never visited, much less settled.

“It’s not that easy,” I told her, because by then I had waded past the twelve steps (daunting by themselves) and gotten into the real meat of the chapter. I had read (or thought I had, since I can’t find it now) the paragraph that says that people who try to lead “good lives,” or who “try to act morally”—sorry, but these people are outta luck! No, dammit, step three means just what it says, and no weaseling or pussyfooting! Here it is, dammit!

“Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” (Italics in the original.)

Well—I’ll out myself. My biggest fear is of living in a world in which people have turned over their will and lives to the care of God as they understood Him. Which is why, today, I have not read much about the bombing in Manchester, England, immediately following a pop concert that attracted mostly teenagers. 22 people are dead, including (it’s thought) the man who made the IED. (Remember the first time you learned that IED was an “improvised explosive device?” Before then, they were just homemade bombs….)

So I can’t tell you much about the guy who killed 22 people yesterday. I don’t know his background, and I’ve really stopped caring. It was clear after the Boston marathon bombings that reading the biographies, getting the back story, watching the sobbing mother and the angry father—all of that was not going to explain how a suburban Boston man could put a pressure-cooker filled with nails and a timer in front of a child. Yes, a child he must have seen. But is there any doubt that he was giving his life and his will (as well as several other lives and wills) to his God as he understood Him?

This is extreme, of course. But I could also recount an experience that happened to me the last time I went into swimming in a pool.

We were in St. Thomas, staying at a hotel instead of enduring the San Sebastian Festival. And among the hotel were a young couple, clearly Muslim: the woman was draped in full-length black robe, and wore hijab, or head covering. We observed her as we frolicked in the pool, which was dangerous even for me, tall and a strong swimmer. Why? The first ten feet or so gradually deepened, but in a footstep the water went from being at shoulder level to being over my head. And it was into this pool that the young Muslim women entered. Dressed, yes, fully in her robe and her headscarf.

It was lunacy, and no, I don’t think that Allah—as I understand him—cared a fig whether she wore her robe and her hijab into the pool. I cared, and I’m sorry to say, cared almost more for the hapless person who might have to rescue her. I thought it might be me, trying to drag an hysterical, panicking body wrapped in yards of waterlogged fabric out of danger.

It’s easy for atheists to make these criticisms. I freely grant you that we do not—we freethinkers—set up soup lines, feed the homeless, shelter runaways, visit the aged and infirm, and do a host of other good things that good churches do.

And I’ve got step 1 down pat, I’m pleased to say. Powerless over alcohol? See the picture below for a glimpse of how I looked, and how I was feeling, and admission to rehab the second time around.

So—the Big Book told me to scurry around and find a God. Well, I did the best I could, and thought rather smugly that I hadn’t done badly. After all, I dragged poor Boethius into it, and he seems to have given up the consolations of philosophy and living about a millennium and a half ago.

It was the best I could do. I am truest to the godhead, at least as I understand it, when I listen to music. So yesterday, I abandoned myself to the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which are usually listened to in the Tenebrae. I had heard about the Lamentations, and I had read about the Tenebrae, but I never knew much about it until I went to the grocery store. There, I ran into the Episcopalian minister who was the partner to the manager of the gay bathhouse. Since the wait in line at the checkout is usually as long as Lent itself, I got a full description of the glorious music of Thomas Tallis, and of the precise order in which the fourteen candles or more are extinguished. The minister painted a wonderfully evocative of the darkening and then darkened church (Tenebrae deriving from the Latin word for shadow). Wikipedia, here, will have to suffice:

The principal Tenebrae ceremony is the gradual extinguishing of candles upon a stand in the sanctuary called a hearse.[7] Eventually, the Roman Rite settled on fifteen candles, one of which is extinguished after each of the nine psalms of Matins and the five of Lauds, gradually reducing the lighting throughout the service. The six altar candles are put out during the Benedictus, and then any remaining lights in the church. The last candle is hidden beneath the altar, ending the service in total darkness. The strepitus (Latin for "great noise"), made by slamming a book shut, banging a hymnal or breviary against the pew, or stomping on the floor, symbolizes the earthquake that followed Christ's death, although it may have originated as a simple signal to depart.[8] After the candle has been shown to the people, it is extinguished, and then put "on the credence table," or simply taken to the sacristy. All rise and then leave in silence.[9]

Ah yes! The very stuff that got good Pope Benedict (nee Josef Ratzinger) out of bed in the morning!

Well, Jeremiah has been lamenting through virtually every Renaissance composer, and I was tempted to do de Morales, again, but decided on Palestrina. I wanted to get to the bottom of the Jeremiah problem as he (Palestrina) understood him.

Well, I should have done all this in the Triduum, or the last three days of Holy Week, but I was busy this year. In fact, the week before Holy Week, I was being detoxified, which involved toxifying myself with Ativan instead of alcohol. The alcohol banished, the hospital then sent me home to detoxify from the Ativan. The process was nearly as bad as going cold turkey from the drink, and occupied much of Holy Week. At the end of it all, I was more ready to join the Filipinos for a little crucifixion reenactment than a sedate darkening of a church into shadows.

The second problem was that I had never gotten around to reading the Book of Jeremiah (and I still haven’t), nor had I read the Book of Lamentations, of whom Jeremiah was once thought to be the author. So I settled right down to work on the Lamentations, which I read in the King James Version, although on my Zenfone Asus 5.0. After all, if it can play music, surely it could “read” (as in display text) the Bible.

Well, I’m happy to say that for once God behaved like an adult and started acting not as I understood Him. No, this God was a downright Old Testament Son of a Bitch, and didn’t the sons and daughters of Jerusalem deserve it? Ahh, it was good lip-smacking stuff! It took me back to my childhood, it did, when I used to watch my father in church, every Sunday, being forced to admit that he was a “miserable sinner.” If God could get the old man to fess up to that, I thought, he had to be some kick-ass god indeed. What my black son would call a regular Niggah!

It was so good, indeed, that I started copying and pasting—you don’t want to lose all this stuff back into the Bible, after all. And that meant that I was copying and pasting virtually chapter and verse. Here’s where the action is just heating up….

1:12 Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.
13 From above hath he sent fire into my bones, and it prevaileth against them: he hath spread a net for my feet, he hath turned me back: he hath made me desolate and faint all the day.  

Wonderful, heady stuff! And had I read it—or heard it sung—in a darkening church a night or two before the resurrection, it would have spoken very exactly to my condition. Because being in rehab, and especially being in the throes of alcohol poisoning that preceded it, was to be in sorrow like unto no sorrow, to have been afflicted with the Lord’s fierce anger, to have received his fire into my bones, and to have been desolate and faint all the day.

God had done one number on Jerusalem, clearly—Sodom and Gomorrah had been a mere warm-up for the real deal. And whoever wrote the Lamentations certainly had the conviction of a great writer: he had clearly told every diligent editor to go to Hell. I myself was craving a red pencil as much as I craved the bottle, but the author held my nose rigorously down in the mud. He described every degradation, every humiliation, every devastation, and then he turned around and drove back through the country all over again. My rehab days began to glow quite pinkly in my memory as I read on through Lamentations!

In fact, rehab has a certain kind of wonderful. There is only one thing to be done, and that is to endure it. You go through an almost sadistic rite of initiation (I was stripped naked, patted down—who knew if a razor blade might not be lurking in my hair)? I was forced to bend my knees and lower my waist to my ankles, stretch my arms and cough. All under the cruel, unblinking eye of an “aide.” You are then led to a room, where there is a bedframe, a mattress, and linen. You are exhausted, as much by the completely sleepless night you have endured as by the effort of seeing your loved one see you, at your absolute worst moment.

At last, on that first day of my second journey into rehab, I found myself on the bed I had made—in both senses. A nurse had come in my room bearing comfort, also in two senses. She gave me the 2 mg of Ativan, and then, remembering our last conversation in the previous hospitalization, said, “hey, you tried. That’s good!”

There was then nothing to do. I could sleep, and did. Somebody would bring me food. There was great freedom in being locked away, since I did not have to struggle with the question: should I, or even could I, go down to CVS and buy the cheapest bottle of scotch? Should I, could I, make it through the day to dinnertime, when my husband would come home? What kind of shape would I be in? Would I be slurring my words, stumbling at the table, breaking wine glasses and dropping cutlery? How much work would it take to try and fake being sober, and how likely would it be that I would succeed?

And the worst question of all: assuming I could get through the evening, what sort of night would I have? If I tell you that I was anxious, the night before I went into rehab, will you know what that was? Imagine falling from a skyscraper: you are plummeting downward. In fact, you should be exhilarated, thrilled finally to feel your body free from the ground, from the bonds of the earth. You are, in fact, terrified, because you know that in one second your body will explode against the pavement, and your life, in one cataclysm of pain and blood, will be over.

That one second before the crash? I lived that one second for eight hours, as I counted each quarter hour down to the time I could get up and go to the hospital.

I had brought it on myself, of course. God had had nothing to do with it: he had not put the bottle to my lips, he had not extended my arm to reach for the booze that I hid under my bed. No, no—he had not brought me to this.

But what if he had? He had destroyed Jerusalem, and the Jews, though lamenting, had still welcomed the destruction, or at least granted the justice or the fitness of the punishment. Why could I not say, as a man might have a few centuries before, that God had brought me very low? That He had cast me among the swine, the lepers, the unclean? I cannot claim to know Him, nor do I know his will.

I can only say that He had been there, as I lay drunk in my bed, and got drunker.

And he had been there as well, when finally I came into my room in rehab. It was empty, as empty as the bare mattress awaiting its sheets and human cargo. No, there was nothing in that room, nothing at all. Housekeeping had come, cleaned the blood and tears from the walls and the mattress. They had polished the mirror carefully: no trace of a creased and leaden visage remained there. A squirt from the can had freshened the air. It was only I, sleepless and drunk, who saw the figure on the mattress. He’d been waiting, after all, and he looked up, smiled slightly, less at me than what he knew of me. He shifted a bit. It seemed, after all of this time, that at last, in this infinite emptiness, there was room for God and for me.